Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Choosing a dog

 dsrug3

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Dogs can be wonderful companions, and can bring great pleasure to their owners. They are also a long-term commitment. Some of the longer lived breeds can live to be 16 or 17-years-old, so you need to be able to plan ahead if you are thinking of getting a dog. You also need to think of the time and energy involved, especially in training young dogs, as well as those daily walks, to see how dogs would fit into your current lifestyle, and whether you are able to adapt to dog ownership.

Preparing for dog ownership

Before thinking of which dog you want, try walking with people who have dogs, and then taking dogs for a walk on your own, and even dog-sitting, so you have a better idea of what dog ownership involves. Talk to people who have puppies, if you plan on getting a pup. You may also find a training class where you can go and watch as a spectator, and see what’s involved in dog training. The better prepared you are, the easier it will be if you get a dog. And if you decide you don’t want one, that decision is best made before, rather than after you have brought a pup into your life. There are plenty of dogs in need of someone to take them for a walk, so it’s easy to have contact with dogs without actually having to be responsible for one 24/7.

You’ll need some support from family or friends if you live alone - like someone to walk the dog if you are ill. Talk to other dog owners – they’re often happy to help out, and you can care for their dog in return, when they need help. You’ll also need to plan ahead if you aim to have children, so your dog is able to fit into the expanded family. Your dog also has to fit into the type of accommodation you’re likely to be living in over the years - if you’re going to move to a studio flat in a big city, then keeping a dog may not be a good idea. It’s possible to keep a dog if you don’t have a secure garden, but it involves more work. It means, for example, that you may have to get dressed to go out in the middle of the night if your dog needs a wee, whereas if you have a secure garden you can just open the back door, and you needn’t worry so much about what you wear when you accompany the dog outside.

Pup or dog?

Puppies are cute, and it’s fun just to watch them for hours. But can you take time off to look after a pup for those demanding first few weeks? Housetraining takes much longer if you aren’t at home to take the pup out several times a day. Pups also like company. A young pup finds it a shock to go from being with litter-mates and mum to being alone all day. Pups also have key periods after which socialisation and habituation are more difficult, so you need to have the time to get them used to different people and dogs, as well as traffic, other animals, and various sounds and sights they need to be able to cope with. A very young pup, of six to nine weeks, needs an owner with plenty of time to spend with their new pet.

Some breeders retain pups for a while, and do a good job of socialising them. You may want a slightly older pup if you can’t take much time off work, but you have to ensure that the breeder really does have time to do the tasks that you aren’t able to. Breeders with a lot of pups may not have much time to give individual attention to each one. You need to ask questions about how the pups are socialised, and how many pups the breeder has to care for, and if there are a lot of pups, whether there are enough people working at the kennels for the pups to have individual attention.

Pups tend to be taken home from breeders at an older age in the US than in the UK, on the grounds that pups need to stay with their litter mates and mother, in order to be socialised. The UK view, in contrast, tends to be that owners should get pups young in order to socialise them! The key question, then, is who will do the better job of socialising the pups, the breeder or the owner? If you don’t have enough time to socialise a young pup as well as the breeder, then the pup is better off with the breeder. If the breeder has too many pups to give them individual attention, while you do have the time, then the pup is better off with you. Young pups can be socialised with other pups and friendly older dogs, rather than with their litter mates. They can’t run around in public places and meet just any dog, but they can meet friendly dogs you know to be healthy and vaccinated.

An alternative to a pup is an adult dog, though you’ll still need someone at home at first, or be able to take time off work, to allow the dog to settle in. Adult dogs are more predictable in some ways, since it’s not always easy to tell how pups will turn out, especially if they’re cross-breeds. You may need to retrain an adult who has learnt bad habits though, and that can be time-consuming.

Older, ‘senior’, dogs are often quiet and good-natured. They tend to be overlooked when people choose a pet, because of fears that they may cost a lot in vets’ bills, or not live long, and cause heartache when they die. Yet it’s a great gift to an old dog whose owner has maybe died, to offer a comfortable home for a few years, and this may be a good solution for you if you aren’t sure about your life in ten years’ time, or want a quiet dog who doesn’t need long walks, and is content just to be by your side in the evening.

Spacing out the ages of your dogs is a good idea, if you have more than one. It’s harder to train two pups at the same time than it is to cope with one. It’s not just that it takes double the amount of time, they will tend to focus a lot on each other, and need a lot of separate walks, to encourage them to focus more on you. It’s also harder to cope with two dogs dying, one shortly after the other. So think hard before taking on two pups of similar ages, especially if they are litter-mates.

Pick a dog that suits your personality and experience

Dogs vary a lot in terms of temperament, as do people, so you need to pick a pup or a dog that suits you. A very ‘pushy’ dog can end up being a pain, if you just want a quiet life, but is fine for someone who likes a very lively dog and is prepared to put a lot of effort into training. Generally, ‘pushy’ dogs are also better suited to people with some experience. This applies to ‘pushy’ pups too, the ones that rush forward and say ‘Me, me’, hog their siblings’ bones and toys, and struggle a lot when you handle them. ‘Average’ dogs are easier for novice owners, ie dogs and pups who show interest in you, but aren’t especially demanding, and who will relax when you start to scratch behind their ears. Anxious and timid dogs and pups, who hang back or run away when you approach, will take a lot of patience, and aren’t suitable for homes where there’s a lot of activity, especially those where there are children.

Try to predict health problems

Dogs and pups with runny eyes or discharge from their ears, or signs of squittiness are best avoided. There are dogs with disabilities and chronic health problems which need homes, however, especially in rescue centres. Talk to the staff there about what you can expect. Sometimes dogs look dreadful because they have suffered from a flea allergy, or other skin problems, which can clear up rapidly. Dogs can also live happily with one eye or three legs! There are also health problems associated with certain breeds, as will be explained.

Dogs and bitches, and decisions on neutering

The choice of gender carries with it decisions about whether or not to neuter, or take on a dog that is already neutered. Gender can be important if you already have another dog. Generally, bitches tend not to fight as much as intact males, whether or not the bitch is spayed. However, when bitches do fight each other, it tends to be serious, especially when they live together, whereas fights between dogs can be serious, but are more likely just to involve a lot of noise, with no harm done. Properly socialised dogs are also generally less likely to fight dogs of the opposite sex. This means that if you already have a dog, it’s safer to get one of the opposite sex. A dog-dog combination is the second best bet, and a bitch-bitch combination is the least recommended. However, a lot depends on the temperament of the dogs, and two easy-going bitches can get on fine, while bitches and dogs may spat with one another if they have pushy or prickly temperaments.

In terms of training, bitches may seem calmer, and take better to obedience classes, but some owners prefer intact males for certain specialised activities like competitive retrieving - even though an intact male will tend to be distracted by the smell of a bitch in season(1).

Many people see intact males as more aggressive, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Neutered males were actually more likely to bite than intact males, or neutered and intact bitches, according to one survey, which also found spayed bitches more likely to bite than entire males, and intact females least likely to bite(2). Some males may have been neutered because they were aggressive, making this group of neutered dogs seem more aggressive on average than it would otherwise be, so this does not mean that neutering makes males more likely to bite. There are, in fact, owners who report their male dogs to be less aggressive after neutering. Some bitches, in contrast, have been reported as more aggressive after being neutered, and it’s not realistic to expect neutering to improve a bitch’s behaviour in terms of making her less aggressive, though moodiness linked to seasons will disappear.

Temperament, training (especially bite inhibition) and socialisation all affect whether and when dogs might bite. Bitches aren’t likely to become nasty after spaying, if they’ve been properly socialised and trained. Neutering alone isn’t likely to make your male dog civilised overnight. It may help in some cases, but isn’t an alternative to training. Dogs also vary in terms of how their maleness affects them. Some dogs may be aggressive with other entire males, and regularly become ‘lovesick’, howling and going off their food. Other intact dogs are less affected by their hormones, so decisions on neutering males to improve behaviour are best looked at in terms of the individual dog.

There is, however, a case for neutering on the grounds of health or population control, especially for spaying bitches. Spayed bitches tend to live longer on average, according to British data(3). Neutered males, in contrast, were recorded as living slightly less on average than entire males in this sample (this may be because some males were neutered because of ill health, making the neutered group seem less healthy than it would otherwise be.) Neutered males are less likely to die of cancer, while owners of intact males need to check their dogs’ testicles for lumps, as the dogs get older. However, neutered males are more likely to die of heart disease. Spayed bitches are less likely to suffer pyometra, though they may suffer other problems such as spay-related incontinence and dull coats(3). Neutered bitches and dogs can also put on weight easily, and you need to watch their diet - this includes titbits! It’s possible that neutered dogs benefit from different diets from intact dogs, such as the inclusion of more oily fish in their diet, but more research is needed on this. What is clear is that controlling any tendencies towards obesity is a way of increasing the longevity of neutered dogs.

The view of whether dogs should be neutered varies very much from one country to another. In Norway, for example, dogs tend not to be neutered, whereas in the US there is a strong drive to neuter. This partly reflects a greater unwanted dog problem in the US. In the UK it tends to be a personal decision, depending on the dog and your circumstances. 

Choosing a breed or breed-type

You’ll need to think about breed characteristics whether you get a pedigree dog or a mutt, since even mutts may clearly belong to one of the different ‘families’ of dogs, especially if their ancestors were all of the same type, eg all herding dogs. Mutt puppies can develop in unpredictable ways, however, especially if there has been a mix of different types of dogs, such as guard dogs and herding dogs.

Mutts may be healthier than pedigree dogs, but this isn’t always the case, since both parents may be vulnerable to the same defects, such as hip trouble, even if they are from different breeds. You will only get ‘hybrid vigour’ if only one parent carries the gene for the condition you want to avoid. Second crosses, ie the children of crosses, lack this hybrid vigour, even if the first generation benefited from it. Some crosses work better than others, then, in terms both of health and of character, and you can gain insights into this from asking people who deal with crossbreeds a lot, such as shelter workers and trainers.

Whether you choose a mutt or a pedigree dog, you need to think about the type of dog that will suit you best, rather than going for a dog that looks classy or cute. Over the long term, you’re likely to have a better relationship with a nice-natured dog than a good-looking one. You’ll also come to see your own dog as the best looking in the training class, even if he only has three legs, or has a common colour combination like black and tan - black and tan dogs can have very expressive eyebrows!

Questions that you’ll need to ask include: how good with kids a dog from a particular  is likely to be, excitability, trainability, what the dog is designed to do, how noisy dogs from that breed tend to be, how big the dog is, how much exercise the breed needs, whether a lot of grooming is needed, and what sorts of health problems are common in the breed. Bear in mind too, that there can be a lot of variation within breeds, and even within litters, and much depends on how the dog is raised.

Some breeds have a reputation for being good with kids, others less so. In practice, a lot depends on the particular dog and child. Cavalier King Charles spaniels are usually softies, quite small, and easy dogs for children to take on walks, so they are sometimes recommended for children, but they can find noisy, exciteable kids a bit much. Terriers are often described as unsuitable for kids, because terriers can be a bit nippy, but they can be very good companions for sensible children who don´t wind them up. Some dogs are easier for kids to walk than others. If you want to know how good dogs from a breed are with kids, talk to people who have both, and see how they get on. This will give you some idea, though there are often enormous differences in temperament within breeds, especially popular breeds like golden retrievers and German shepherds, so check a potential pup’s parents and grandparents as well. A dog´s early experiences also affects how he sees kids. Dogs brought up with children who treat them well tend to like children. Dogs that have been plagued by kids may dislike them, and dogs that have never known kids may be spooked by them, so look beyond breed if you want a dog that gets on with your kids.

Trainability can be seen in two ways, general levels of trainability, and whether a dog can be trained to do a particular task well. Independent breeds, such as spitzes, tend to be generally more difficult to train. They may need a lot of work on motivation. It’s not that independent breeds are necessarily less intelligent than dogs that are more easily trained, you just need to work harder to motivate them.

Some breeds are also hardwired to do certain things well, like retrieving dogs which are primed to bring back balls (5). You can train most dogs to do most things, but it’s easier to teach a dog to do something that it’s already hardwired to do well, and more difficult to teach a dog to do things that go against its nature. Recall can be difficult to teach for certain hounds, like beagles. Dogs also vary in terms of how ‘forgiving’ they are of mistakes made in their training. You can make mistakes with a labrador retriever, like inadvertantly encouraging bad behaviour, and they tend to have a less serious effect than if you make mistakes training a German Shepherd, for example. Novices are usually better off with dogs from the more ‘forgiving’ breeds and breed mixes.

Many owners see their dogs as having ‘behavioural problems’ when the dog is just behaving in a way that the breed is designed to behave. Border collies from working stock need to be kept busy with activities that they can do with their owners, like scent work, or they can get up to mischief, and they like quiet when they are not working. Some dogs have been bred to bark at intruders. People in houses with thin walls need quiet, rather than barky breeds, so this is something you need to research before you get the dog and the neighbours complain!

Size is also important if you are in a small home, since dogs can take up a lot of room. Size matters too, if you are physically small, or not very strong physically. Large, muscly breeds such as akitas are difficult to control unless you have physical strength. Children can be knocked over by large, excitable dogs, and can’t easily take them out for walks.

Exercise and grooming involve input from the owner, so if you haven’t much energy and/or time to exercise and groom a dog, and just want to relax with your dog and watch TV, then choose low-maintenance breeds. Long-haired breeds tend to need grooming more often, though it’s dogs with very fine hair that tend to matt easily and need particular attention.

The other major, and related issues are longevity and health. There are big differences in the average lifespans of different breeds, and serious health problems are common in some breeds. This is true when, for example, dogs are bred to look cute by giving them big eyes and short noses. Generally, ‘extreme’ dogs  tend to have more health problems. This also applies to giant breeds, like Irish wolfhounds, which tend not to live long, whereas whippets have much longer average lifespans(3).

It’s up to you to find out what common health problems affect breeds you’re interested in, and to check that any pup you buy has been tested, and whether their parents were (6). People selling dogs aren’t likely to tell you ‘by the way, dogs from this breed often suffer from this common problem, and it’s up to you to take on the risk’! Testing is more important than a dog winning prizes for its looks. Some conditions are inherited, and may not appear until later life. This means that a dog can win prizes as a youngster, become a popular stud, and develop a genetic condition later on. Other problems may be built into the dog because humans have created a deformed animal that can’t function properly. Bulldogs often can’t give birth easily, due to their large heads, for example, and breathing problems are common. If you really like an ‘extreme’ breed, where breeding for a particular shape has been linked to health problems, it’s worth doing a lot of research to find healthy individuals from breeders who want their dogs to have long, active lives, and have gone for health rather than exaggerated looks. In contrast, there are breeds which are fairly robust - this tends to be the case for the spitz family, though it’s still worth checking for tests for common health problems.

Ideally, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about how long the pup's ancestors lived, what if any illnesses they suffered from, and what they died of and when. A good breeder will be keen to talk about their efforts to ensure the line is healthy. If a breeder sounds offended when you ask about health, this is a warning signal!  You can’t expect breeders to check for every possible condition, but testing should be done for the most common conditions that afflict the breed.

Some diseases can be triggered by environmental factors, especially exercise and diet (seeDogs and Diet). Choosing a dog from a healthy line is just the start, the dog also needs a healthy lifestyle!

How to find out about breeds

Books of the breed are a starting point for learning about breed characteristics, but they often gloss over health and behavioural problems associated with the breed in question. We’ve provided short profiles of some of the most popular breeds, together with breed book descriptions - see the Books on Single Breeds. Try narrowing down your choice to three or four breeds, then carry out a more in-depth study of them. Training classes are a useful place to observe different breeds and compare them, and you can talk to the trainer about the different training needs of breeds. Your local vet may be able to recommend a trainer, and give you information on health problems associated with breeds.

Online breed forums can give a lot of insight what it’s like to own a dog from a particular breed, as well as differences within the breed. These are especially noticeable where there are working and show lines, and some people argue that working and show labrador are really separate breeds.

It’s often said that working dogs don’t make good pets. This is partly true, a dog that wants to work needs an owner who can give the dog a job, and working dogs can be a bit pushier than average. You can expect to get a dog that wants to work if you get a dog from a working line, but there can be differences within litters, and sometimes dogs are returned that aren’t suited for a working life, but make very good pets. There are also many people who want both a pet and a dog that can do interesting activities with them, which makes for a fuller relationship than a couple of walks a day. Again, it’s worth doing research before taking a decision, and being realistic about how much time and energy you’ll have for joint activities with your dog. 

Where to find a dog

Breed characteristics affect the dog’s potential, but dogs are also affected by their early experiences, such as socialisation, training, diet and exercise (5). Pups, for example, both inherit and learn behavioural traits from their parents, so it's a good idea to get to know the parents of any pup you take on. Dogs are easier to manage if they have a friendly mum, and have been well-socialised as pups, rather than living in an isolated garage or outhouse. Pups brought up in a home where they can safely observe a lot of activity and get used to seeing humans nearby, are more likely to see humans as friends.

Contact with friendly dogs is important for puppies' development as they get older, so that they learn how to relate to other dogs. You need to ensure that the breeder you choose is socialising your pup with other dogs, not just the mother and littermates, if you are taking on an older pup.

The importance of early experience means that it’s best to know the breeder, rather than buying a pup from a newspaper advert. Pups advertised through newspapers may not have been socialised. They may also have all sorts of health problems, and come from a mother who has had too many litters too fast. If you buy pups from dubious sources, you not only take on problems, but encourage puppy farms which just breed dogs for profit. Even if you take on such pups for free, remember that they may never overcome problems arising from poor health and inadequate early socialisation.

You can check out a mutt in the same way as a pedigree - do the parents have nice natures? Are there any known health problems in the family? How are the pups being raised? A mutt pup with healthy parents with placid natures, that has been well-socialised by being raised in a family kitchen, is likely to bring you far more pleasure than a puppy-farm pedigree pup. Ironically you can often find out more about a mutt’s pedigree than a pedigree dog, since mutts’ families are often local, whereas you may need to travel a long way to meet the family of a pedigree dog. You may also be able to handle a mutt pup from a very young age, by visiting the litter before the pup is ready to be taken home. You can take the owner a present of puppy food, or puppy milk, if the mother is low on milk, and this both helps the owner and ensures that your pup feeds properly.

Anyone providing you with a dog should be concerned about what happens to that dog, and is likely to ask you a lot of questions, to see if you’ll be a good owner. Don’t be offended - this is a good sign, whether it’s a breeder or a rescue centre asking the questions. Good breeders and rescue centres will also provide help after you have got the dog home, and will take the dog back if there are any problems. See what the price covers, if you pay a lot of money. If it includes health checks, ongoing advice, a commitment to take the dog back, and responsibility for any inherited defects the pup may have, the chances are you have a good deal, even if you feel you are paying a lot. Rescue centres, including those run by breed rescue organisations, can offer particularly good deals, as well as giving you the chance to help a dog in need.

Rescue dogs are sometimes seen as ‘problem dogs’, but many are simply homeless because their owners have moved house, fallen ill, died, or got divorced. These dogs may just have minor behavioural problems because their owners didn't have the time to train them properly. Rescue centres should be able to advise you on whether a particular dog will suit you, and what you'll need to focus on in training. It's in their interests to make sure that they rehome dogs with the right people and to help you overcome any problems. They can give you time to get to know any dog you are interested in, and should provide a follow-up service.

One way to choose a rescue dog is to work out what kind of dog suits you, then find a good rescue centre where you can ask the rescue staff which dogs fit the bill. They’ve had more time to assess the dogs, and have the experience to work out what makes for successful placements. An alternative is to take a very dog-savvy person, such as an experienced trainer, with you when you make your choice.

Let the whole family, including any dogs you may already own, meet any dogs you’re interested in, because it’s important that all members of the household can get on with the new arrival.

Sources of information on good breeders and rescue centres include vets, trainers, and breed clubs. Newspaper, magazine and internet adverts mean a breeder probably isn’t too bothered where the pup goes to, not a good sign. Breed rescue organizations may be able to help with finding a good breeder. This is especially true for less numerous breeds where there aren’t many breeders, and people involved in the breed know one another well. Breeders may also have adult dogs returned which are unsuitable for their previous owner, but may suit you.

Maybe later

Dogs involve commitment, and maybe you're not yet ready for a dog, but you still enjoy being with them. There is no need to become a dog owner. You may have neighbours who would welcome help with their dogs when they are at work or on holiday. Elderly people often dote on their dogs, and provide them with company, but no longer have the mobility to take them out. Your local rescue centre may need volunteers. There are many ways of enjoying the company of dogs without actually owning one. 


Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Diana Attwood, Amy Dahl, Helle Haugenes, and Nancy Holmes for information and ideas on choosing dogs. The views presented in this article do not necessarily reflect their views.

References:

1) Neutered males tend not to put on as much muscle, or learn as rapidly as intact males, or bitches, spayed or unspayed, according to breeder, retriever trainer and author, Amy Dahl (private communication).

2) Data on 3,226 dogs in Canada were collected for this study by N.C.Guy et al ‘Demographic and aggressive characteristics of dogs in a general veterinary caseload’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2001) 74, pp 15-28. The questionnaire was directed at all dogs at 20 vets, rather than just dogs that had bitten humans, which were found to account for 15.6% of the total, a far higher figure than would be apparent from hospital reports.

3) This study is ‘Longevity of British breeds of dog and its relationships with sex, size, cardiovascular variables and disease’ by A.R. Michell, in Veterinary Record (1999) 145, pp 625-629. This is an interesting study with a lot of information on breed and health issues. The sample size was 3,126 dogs, 1,277 of which were intact males, 291 neutered males, 833 intact females, and 720 neutered females. The average (mean) age of death from all causes was 12 years for spayed bitches, 10 years 11 months for intact males, 10 years 10 months for intact females, and 10 years 8 months for neutered males. Bedlington terriers, miniature dachshunds, and miniature and toy poodles were among the long-lived breeds.

4) There is some information on breeds and behaviour in ‘Determination of behavioural traits of pure-bred dogs using factor analysis and cluster analysis: a comparison of studies in the USA and UK’ by J.W.S. Bradshaw and D. Goodwin, in Research in Veterinary Science (1998) 66, pp73-76. Breed characteristics can change over time, and some breeds are perceived differently in the US and UK, as this study notes.

5) James Serpell’s‘The Domestic Dog’ has articles on breed, gender and the environment, and how they may affect behavior. His ideas are interesting, but bear in mind that there are variations within breeds. Serpell also notes that pet store pups are more likely to have problems than other categories, including shelter dogs (pp91 - 92).

 6) Farrell et al’s article on health problems in pedigree dogs is worth a read, if you want to take on a pedigree dog: The Challenges of Pedigree Dog Health: approaches to combating inherited disease,  Canine Genetics and Epidemiology 2015, 2:3

 Dogs on stamps: http://www.filatelicbird.co.uk/animals_domesticdogs-a-f.html